Falstaff, Opera b G. Verdi
That Giuseppe Verdi, the master of operatic melodrama, should succeed at turning his hand to comedy, is perhaps no great surprise; the fact that with Falstaff he did so at the age of seventy-nine has to be one of the genre’s greatest and most unexpected accomplishments.
True, he had attempted humour before with Un Giorno di Regno (A One Day Reign), more than fifty years before, but its failure nearly resulted in Verdi giving up on opera altogether. Fortunately, his love of the wit of William Shakespeare, and the reception given to his Othello and Macbeth, finally persuaded Verdi that good opera could be played for laughs.
In the story, the aged and, quite frankly, unappealing Falstaff, still thinks he has it in him to win over the ladies. Having fallen on hard times, he comes up with a plan to capture the heart of not just one but two wealthy women. The objects of his affections, however, are always one step ahead of him. Falstaff ends up being unceremoniously dumped into the Thames and then, tricked into the promise of a secret assignation in the forest, having the living daylights scared out of him before accepting finally that the joke is on him.
Now destined for the Vienna State Opera, Falstaff, which was composed to a libretto written by Arrigo Boito adapted largely from The Merry Wives of Windsor, was first performed on 9 February 1893 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan to a highly expectant audience, some of whom had paid as much as thirty times the theatre’s usual ticket prices to be in the auditorium.
They were not to be disappointed. Rather than witnessing Verdi’s musical swansong, they saw what many consider to be his greatest work for the stage. The score for Falstaff is musically complex yet perfectly underpins the farce, before culminating in his singers famously declaring that “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (“All the world is folly”), a sung fugue of breathtaking proportions the likes of which had never been heard in opera before.